Saudi Aramco World: May/June 2014 - page 40

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Saudi Aramco World
It is hard to imagine springtime in northern Europe, or much of the
US
,
without the crocuses, tulips, narcissi, hyacinths and numerous other flowers that arrived
from the Muslim world. It is almost as hard to imagine European cuisine without
the fruits and vegetables of the Americas: potatoes, corn, peppers, tomatoes
and squashes—to say nothing of chocolate, pineapples and vanilla.
Plants both have moved and have been moved since time imme-
morial, but during Greek, Roman and Islamic classical periods,
interest lay primarily in those of economic or medical impor-
tance. Purely decorative flowers were felt to have been of limited
importance until the 16th
century, although scented
ones were considered
health-giving and hence
classed with herbal drugs.
Treatises, from Cato’s
On Agriculture
, writ-
ten around 160
BCE
, to
works on agriculture
from botanists in al-
Andalus and elsewhere
in the Muslim world of
the Middle Ages, tend
to concentrate on these
categories. Even Ibn Bas-
sal, who collected plants
in the late 11th century
while returning to Spain
from the Hajj, mentions
few flowers for their beauty or rarity among the more than 180
listed in his
Diwan al-Filaha
(
Book on Agriculture
). This might
seem surprising today, since he was head of the royal botanical
gardens in Toledo, and later in Seville.
The first wave of
plant introductions
about which we have
written records took
place during the classi-
cal period. Alexander
the Great, for example,
Probably introduced to
Europe in the 13th century,
saffron crocuses have long
held both medical and,
most importantly,
economic value. Crocus
sativus appears on this
folio,
far left,
from a
10th-century Arabic
version of Dioscorides’s
De Materia Medica and
in this 15th-century
illustration,
left,
a woman
harvests crocus blossoms
for saffron.
TOP: CAROLINE STONE; LEFT: STATE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY, LEIDEN / WERNER FORMAN ARCHIVE / BRIDGEMAN ART LIBRARY; RIGHT: ALBUM / ART RESOURCE;
OPPOSITE: SNARK / ART RESOURCE
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CAROLINE STONE
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